Grandfather tells me about how he lost a ring finger in the jungles of Fujian where you could hear the bullets sailing through the tops of trees like firecrackers on New Year’s.
When it happened he’d been holding a Type Zhongzheng rifle, Chinese make, a copy of a German Mauser down to the bolt action and before the jungle he had fired it twice. Once in a Kuomintang firing range surrounded by rice farmers whose ears pricked up at the sudden noise. Once by accident while filling his canteen in a nearby river when he heard the rustling of grass and thought Mao’s guerrillas had made it past the NRA lines.
They called it Chiang Kai Shek’s rifle after the general himself had gotten the exports from Germany and provided the guns to his best troops. But the first shipment of rifles hadn’t been enough, so the troops also bought the rejects which the Wehrmacht refused to use. In camp, whenever an NRA man got a Type Zhongzheng, he was told to pray for luck every time he pulled the trigger. But in the deltas and rivers with the bullets sailing by no one had much time for prayer.
In the Fujian jungle, Grandfather loaded his Zhongzheng with copper jacket rounds and propped the gun on a rocky outcrop. He waited for the glint of sunlight that would give away the brim of a soldier’s helmet. After fifteen minutes of waiting, Grandfather wiped off the sweat that had gathered on his brow, letting it drip onto the grass. Then Grandfather caught a glint of steel in the light and pressed his finger on the trigger to fire.
That was the third and last time Grandfather fired a rifle in his life. The Zhongzheng he’d received was of brittle make and collapsed with the combustion of the gunpowder in the barrel. Bits of the metal chassis cut into the bark of nearby banyan trees and one shard pierced Grandfather’s ring finger and cut it at the bone, leaving it splayed on the jungle floor as if pointing its way to sanctuary. Grandfather swore in Fookien, cursing himself for forgetting to pray.
At this point in his story Grandfather stops to roll up the sleeve of his loose button-down polo and points out two red marks on the skin of his left arm. Two smaller shards of the rifle lodged themselves into the flesh there. The welts are like small valleys among the ridges of his wrinkles. Grandfather gestures at them as if to say that to this day he still remembers the heat of the jungle, still remembers the digging of metal shards against his skin.
After the medics sewed up his wounds and discharged him, Grandfather went home to Gulangyu Island and burned his poster of Chiang Kai Shek. He told me the name reminded him too much of the rifle that severed his finger and left it in the soil. While letting the ash coat the bottom of an iron barrel grandfather realized that it was no longer safe for him to stay, so he boarded a boat bound for the Philippines.
In previous stories Grandfather said he went to the Philippines because his uncle had set up a small business there shipping rattan to Indonesia. But today Grandfather says something different and tells me he was drawn somehow to the fractured archipelago. On humid monsoon days, he would unfurl maps of the world within the spare ship cabin and circle out the country in red marker. In his dreams instead of counting sheep he would count the bulbous and broken landmasses, trying to divine how many islands there were based on his recollections of the map. Sometimes his counts reached two hundred, though he could never get past that number before drifting off, leaving the bottom regions of Mindanao uncharted.
On the rattan ships of his uncle, Grandfather developed callouses on his remaining fingers. He drew rope to anchor and dragged coils of it across the steel flooring of the craft. Sometimes when the ship was ready to unmoor he would untie rattan cords from the harbor’s posts, leaving rough patches on the undersides of his thumbs. Grandfather tells me that though his uncle was frugal and paid him little, he was able to see much of the world. The busy Jakarta ports with stone lions and many-armed goddesses on the prows of skiffs; coral scraping onto the hull in the shallow regions of Scarborough Shoal; the rough typhoon winds of Basilan, which almost grounded his craft. In each of these places Grandfather coiled and uncoiled lengths of rattan rope for trade, leaving small scratches on his fingertips and shedding flakes of his skin.
Once again Grandfather stops his story to unfurl his hands and asks me to run my small smooth fingers across his wrinkled ones. I avoid the stump of his ring finger on the right hand, then feel the callouses on his thumbs, like jutting promontories or islands so small they sink underneath the high tide. There are so many bumps and crags that each mark seems to carry the weight of its own unrecorded history. For some reason I imagine Grandfather again in the cabin of the Philippine-bound ship, this time tracing out the lines of his palm with red ink before sleeping.
Grandfather then gestures to his right calf, discolored with a large bruise. And his story continues forty years past the rattan ship to the suburbs of San Francisco where he stayed for a few months in a home for the aged. He kept busy there, acting as a bookkeeper and typing out the purchases of the directress.
Grandfather tells me that one humid afternoon he was walking to the local convenience store for groceries when he heard the loud horn of an approaching Cadillac. At the sound, he turned around with his walker in front of him as if to shield himself from the blow. It wasn’t enough; the metal twisted with the impact of the car and the front bumper of the Cadillac bruised his right leg. The last things grandfather heard before passing out from the pain were the screeching of brakes and the crunch of metal.
In the hospital he fielded nightmares. All of them were punctuated by the sound of twisting metal and bone, though the landscape was always shifting – first Jakarta, then Fujian, and afterwards San Francisco. Always grandfather felt as if a part of him was being rent away by something beyond his control. Always the parts of him that were pulled away from his body still retained sensation. In his nightmares grandfather cried out as a steel-toed military boot crushed his ring finger in a Fujian jungle, as dry flakes of his skin sunk onto the spines of sea urchins clutching to Scarborough rocks. Grandfather tells me his dreams were what an archipelago must feel like when it is being born, torn by currents and tides into constituent islands.
For the last time Grandfather stops his story, mid-nightmare, leaving out the part where he wakes up. Perhaps it is because he is inviting me to fill in the rest of the tale with my own recollection – a rushed Delta airlines flight from Metro Manila to San Francisco; a child holding the hand of his father while staring at the IV drips injected into his grandfather’s withered frame. I cannot be sure; instead I let my fingers feel, again, the ridges and contours of this discolored bruise, this landmass of dried blood, Grandfather’s geographies spelled out for me in silent ritual.
Grandfather died five years ago on this day, and these words are the last things of him I remember. He did not say whether he wanted to be buried or cremated though I knew he would have loved neither. My father cremated him and placed his ashes in an urn; he placed the urn within a two cubic meter marble tomb; he embossed grandfather’s name on the marble in golden lettering. Like any child I did not want my grandfather to die. And when I saw him cancerous on the hospital bed breathing the last ragged breaths of his life, I wanted in vain to freeze his flesh into sculpture somehow, so as to never lose the features of his skin.
Though I know Grandfather’s ashes lie contained within the Sanctuarium urn, I do not imagine that to be his resting place. Instead I tell myself this: it takes roughly one month for new skin cells to reach the top layer of one’s body, meaning that the skin I will wear one month from today will be completely new. But that does not mean the old skin is gone – it is gathered as dust on picture frames, television sets, library books, and typewriters, trillions of discarded geographies and islands lost to the high tide.
Grandfather’s bones now make up the roots of banyan trees in Fujian which are only today beginning to sprout. His dust is spread across the Pacific Ocean leaving trails of trade routes from metro Manila to Jakarta where skiffs vending rattan cords once ran yearly expeditions. On a San Francisco freeway the front bumper of a Cadillac still holds a small part of Grandfather’s salt lake bruises, smudged ever slightly by red paint.
Long ago grandfather dreamed of being born like seven thousand islands proceeding from the body of one. That is the image of him I carry now, five years down the line, as I press my palm against the gold-embossed letters of his tomb.
Ethan Chua is a Chinese-Filipino spoken word poet from the Philippines and a freshman studying at Stanford University, where he is part of the Stanford Spoken Word Collective. He has written poems about stars, short fiction involving bisexual vampires, and essays where his grandparents escape Communist soldiers in Fujian again and again. He’s also the cofounder of Ampersand, an organization dedicated to giving the youth avenues to express themselves through art. Read his work at medium.com/@ezlc327.